Touched by Twain: Lawrence resident recounts childhood trip to author’s hometown

As I looked through a box of old books recently, one classic caught my eye. I dusted off “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Slowly the memories drifted back to me as I recalled my first vacation.

I was thrilled when my grandparents invited me to go with them to Chicago for 10 days. In the fall of 1960, I was a first-grader at East Heights School. Mom talked to my teacher and got permission for me to miss school. The morning we left, I practically tripped over my suitcase as I hurried out the door and up the street to my grandparents’ house. The doormat said “Home of the Howes.” Gramp had packed his and Grandma’s luggage in the trunk of their big, white Ford. He tossed mine in the car, and we were off.

“This will be a trip to remember,” Grandma assured me as we drove east from Lawrence, where we lived. Forty-five minutes later, we traveled through Kansas City, then on into Missouri.

Halfway through the state, we took a lunch break. Gramp began telling me about our next stop, Hannibal, Mo.

“It was the hometown of Mark Twain,” he explained.

That name really grabbed my attention. I knew he had written lots of books. I’d also seen a picture of him somewhere, with his white hair, bushy mustache and fancy white suit.

Later that afternoon, we pulled into Hannibal and located Mark Twain’s boyhood home. We took a tour of this small, two-story house. It was interesting to see where a famous person once lived. I climbed the stairs he must have played on as a kid. I saw the bedroom where he probably sat at a little desk, gazing out the window — thinking, plotting and planning stories he would write for school.

At a nearby gift shop, my grandparents bought my copy of “Tom Sawyer.” I tucked the book in my suitcase. Then we drove to a motel called “The Injun Joe Resort,” named after that ornery character in the novel.

Before bedtime, my grandparents told me they had planned a tour of “the cave” the next day. I was so excited, I could hardly get to sleep.

The next morning, we headed for the cave. Soon we found ourselves entering the mouth of the cave, in the side of a hill. There were narrow, winding corridors, with rough, stone walls. We walked among a small group of tourists, with a young lady as our guide. I was amazed when she told us that the cave was written about in “Tom Sawyer.”

The guide suggested that Sam Clemens, who later became Mark Twain, explored the cave with his friends as a boy. In those days, they used candles to light the way. Overhead lightbulbs now illuminate the corridors. To show what the boys would have experienced as their candle went out, our guide turned off the lights for a moment. Everyone gasped as we were plunged into total darkness. I was relieved when the lights were on again. Suddenly, I had great respect for the spunk and bravery of young Sam Clemens.

Leaving the cave, I had to squint as we entered the sunlight. It was time to continue our journey. Since Hannibal lies along the Mississippi, we crossed a bridge that spanned the mighty river. Gramp told me that Mark Twain left his hometown as a young man and got a job as the pilot of a steamboat on the Mississippi. As the story goes, Mark Twain chose that name because it was the term used to indicate that the water depth was safe for travel. I was learning more and more about this great American of yesteryear and the exciting life that he led.

We now began our long drive across Illinois. It was late October, and the fields of the Midwest were turning brown. The sun set behind us as we headed east. It was dark when my grandparents and I finally arrived in Chicago. I’d never seen so many bright lights! We stayed with Grandma’s cousin and his wife. Each day, they would take us sightseeing. One day, we visited the Brookfield Zoo. We toured the Museum of Science and Industry, and we saw antique machines and inventions of all kinds. We even took a helicopter ride over the city, soaring high above Chicago’s many skyscrapers.

Every evening, Gram or Gramp would read a chapter of “Tom Sawyer” to me. We read the part about Tom white-washing the fence. I was fascinated with the way he slyly persuaded his friends to do the work, by pretending it was fun. Each exciting chapter brought new escapades by Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and friends.

Before we knew it, it was time to head home to Lawrence. I couldn’t believe our vacation was almost over. Grandma sat in the back seat and read to me. By the time we arrived home, we were about halfway through the book. So every evening, I’d walk up the street to my grandparents’ house and plop onto their big, soft couch. We continued reading until we finished “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

Looking back to the fall of 1960, we really did take a trip to remember — thanks to my grandparents, the big city of Chicago and that spunky kid from Hannibal.

— Joseph Wettengel is a freelance writer living in Lawrence.